The union that represents workers at a Tyson Foods poultry plant in Tennessee has negotiated a contract that substitutes a Muslim holiday for Labor Day as one of the eight paid holidays at the plant.
The provision, which was proposed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, has delighted the plant’s Somali workers, who account for hundreds of its 1,200 employees. But it has infuriated many outsiders, leading some to denounce Tyson and the union alike.
“You are a union that is proud of achieving a Muslim holiday and prayer room?” one person wrote the union. “A union in the U.S.A., a country based on Christianity. You call yourselves Americans? Have you forgotten 9/11?”
Another wrote: “You had no right to drop Labor Day. Muslim employees must integrate Labor Day into THEIR lives if they are going to live in America.”
Stung by the criticism, Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, said the decision was fully consistent with the spirit of Labor Day.
“We in the labor movement have always understood that unions are only strong when we work to protect the dignity of all faiths, and that includes Muslims,” said Mr. Appelbaum, who also serves as president of the Jewish Labor Committee.
“What we negotiated was the will of the workers,” said Mr. Appelbaum, who added that his was the first union to negotiate a paid day off for a Muslim holiday and that he was sure Tyson would not be the last employer to agree.
The plant affected is in the town of Shelbyville, some 40 miles south of Nashville. Under a five-year contract there, Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, is now one of the plant’s eight paid holidays.
Union officials said the two Somali immigrants on the union’s eight-member bargaining committee had been eager to make Id al-Fitr (pronounced eed-al-FIT-tr) a paid holiday. The union agreed to do so at the expense of Labor Day in part because it did not want to trade Christmas, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day or other existing paid holidays, and in part because Tyson has usually required the plant’s employees to work on Labor Day anyway. (Employees received a holiday premium for working that day.)
“We had worked 23 Labor Days in a row; it wasn’t like it was a day to spend with our family,” said Randy Hadley, a union representative who helped negotiate the contract.
Mr. Hadley said both management and union were surprised when nearly all the Somali workers — Tyson puts their number at 250, the union at nearly 400 — did not work on Id al-Fitr last year. They were not paid, but the plant almost had to close that day, said Mr. Hadley, adding that management was “elated” by the proposal to make Id al-Fitr a holiday. (MORE)